From Feagler’s Cleveland by Dick Feagler
Stop the presses (for the very last time)
The Press was proud of the way it handled obituaries. When I went to work for it in 1963, it was proud of the way it did everything. Proud of the fact that it paid the estimable Maxwell Riddle to spend his full time as a practicing expert on dogs. Proud of its brand new building at the end of Ninth Street (a site chosen by Louie Seltzer who was confident that the city would move in his direction which, obediently, it did.) Proud of the fact that Theodore Andrica, who spoke a babel of languages, was sent yearly on a trip to the old country where he would look up relatives of Cleveland’s ethnic citizens and deliver greetings from the New World. Proud, indeed, that Cleveland’s large Hungarian population was due in part to the fact that Andrica and Louis Clifford (perhaps the greatest city editor in the nation in the fifties and sixties) had traveled to the Hungarian border during the 1956 revolution and greeted and wrung the hands of fleeing refugees.
The Press was proud that it had convicted Samuel Sheppard of the murder of his wife, for the Press saw itself as a righteous instrument of the Almighty’s will which could function where the courts might fail. The Press was proud of the rumors of the tunnel from City Hall into its editor’s office through which mayors elected by the Press could slip unnoticed to receive instructions. The Press was proud of the fact that it paid the bills for other newspapers in the Scripps-Howard chain . . . proud of the fact that it scorned those other newspapers . . . proud of the fact that it paid its own journeymen reporters so much more than union scale that they had forgotten what union scale was (something most PD reporters could learn by merely glancing at their paychecks). The Press was proud of its power, proud of its skill, proud of its staff, proud of the fact that hundreds of people in town including scores of unendorsed and chastised politicians referred to the paper and its editor as “that goddam Louie Seltzer and that goddam Cleveland Press.” The Press was a proud place and it was proud of its obituaries.
“We write them like little human interest stories,” an assistant city editor explained the third day I worked there. “For some people, it’s the only time they get a write-up in the newspaper. So write your obit like a story . . . they’re all different because people are different. Except, of course, they all end the same way.”
I was still on probation and determined to prove myself. The stiff I drew to eulogize was an old tailor who had lived (until the previous day) on Murray Hill. I telephoned his wife.
“Tell me something about your late husband, Madam,” I said.
“I’m a tella you, all right,” she said. “All hisa life he’s a work his fingers to da bone. An what he’s a got to show for it? Two no-good kids so rotten they never bother to come anna see him. He’s a live his life for nutting. Nutting!”
I scribbled this all down and typed it into the death notice. Then I carried it through the clean, new city room and set it down softly next to Louie Clifford. Then I went back to my desk and peeked at Clifford. In about five minutes, he casually picked up the obituary and read it. His expression did not change (it rarely did, I was to learn) but he stiffened slightly. He peered over at me, crooked a finger and beckoned me to him.
“The thing is,” he said, not unkindly, “that I believe this lady said this all right. I believe this is the way she feels now. But what people do with these obituaries is, they cut them out and save them. It isn’t how this lady feels now that is important. It’s how she is going to want to feel next month and next year. An obit is for memories and memories should be the way you want them to be.”
My memories of the Cleveland Press are going to be the way I want them to be. The last look I got at the Press, I will not save. It was Monday of the week after the paper announced its close. I went back to the office to get my clips—walking up the back stairs past the cop that had been hired to make sure that none of us tried to steal “significant” company property like a printing press.
The shabby city room was almost empty. Taped on the glass partitions around the editors’ cubicles were typewritten notes telling of available jobs:
“The San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star is looking for two general assignment reporters. Must speak Spanish and English.”
Inside one of the cubicles, Dan Sabol, the managing editor, was hunched in his chair looking at his phone.
“I’ve been on this thing for two days trying to see what I could line up for people,” he said.
“What do you think you’re going to do, Dan?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “There’s something in Austin, Texas. My wife says if we got to move, what’s the difference if we move to Pittsburgh or Texas?”
(On my first week on the job, nearly 20 years ago, I had gone to lunch with Sabol in one of the Ninth Street restaurants that had been chased out when the office buildings began marching toward Louie Seltzer’s Press. “I go in and ask for a raise every six months,” Sabol had told me then. “Gee,” I said. “Do you get one?” Sabol had smiled, “Usually,” he said.)
Out in the city room, kids I didn’t know—recent hirees—were getting their things out of their desks. They looked sad—they had lost jobs in a business where jobs are hard to get. But their faces did not reflect the stun and shock visible in the faces of the older staff members. The paper had been dying for years, but dying is not dead. A hundred-year-old oak tree in your backyard can be dying . . . but it still stands like a tree and looks like a tree and you know that it stood there before your house did . . . long before you were born. Then one morning there is a crash and the tree is refuse . . . messy trash strewn around the yard. It is a mangled corpse of a tree and the Press, on the last day I saw it, was a mangled corpse of a newspaper. I put my clips in a box and walked out, past the cop. “You wanna see in here?” I said. “Naw,” he said, half embarrassed.
And I went home to shape my memories.
Which are . . .
Learning how to get interviews at the first light of dawn from women who hours before had discovered they were widows; their husbands having been shot or stabbed or killed in auto accidents.
My teacher for this: Bus Bergen, winner of a carton of “Pall Mall Awards” on the old radio program Big Story.
It was a Bergen technique, standing on the stoop, to apologize for intruding on the widow’s grief, then pause, stare at her and say:
“Pardon me, but what was your maiden name?”
“Kmetz,” the woman might say.
“Kmetz,” Bergen would say. “You look awfully familiar to me. Where did you grow up?”
“Lee-Harvard,” the widow might say, or “Miles and 131st” or “St. Clair and 105th.”
To any of these responses, Bergen would reply, “Why, so did I. I thought you looked familiar.” And curiosity (an emotion more powerful in women than in men) would take over and Bergen would be in the door.
To this technique, I added a refinement of my own. If a new widow offers you coffee or tea, always take it. If she doesn’t offer, ask her for some. Get her doing something for you and the interview will go easier.
Memories of . . .
Winsor French, society columnist, who knew everyone in the world worth knowing. “Cleveland is absolutely desolate,” French would write, “entirely everybody is in Europe this month.” And Bill Rice, feature writer and rewrite man would read this and growl, “Goddammit, French. Everybody isn’t in Europe! I’m not in Europe!”
Crippled by disease, French tooled around the office in a wheelchair to the arm of which was affixed a bicycle horn. He and the chair arrived at work each day in French’s Rolls-Royce, piloted by a liveried chauffeur named Sam. When French died, we heard Sam got the Rolls. We didn’t check it because we wanted it to be true. Memories are what you want them to be.
Memories of . . .
Julian Krawcheck who while writing his graceful column would munch copy paper. He was the only man I ever knew who literally ate the stuff and he only ate the cheap kind because the expensive kind had carbon paper in it which, I presume, spoils the taste. . . Jerry Horton, photographer, who taught me how to ring a doorbell. “Nobody home,” I said to Horton one day as we stood on the stoop hoping for an interview. “The sonuvabitch doesn’t want to talk to us,” Horton said. “We’ll just keep ringing it. Watch. We’ll ring it for half a minute and stop. Now we’ll ring it a couple seconds and stop. Now another half minute. Then a full minute. Then a second. Then two minutes. Then ten seconds. It’ll drive him nuts and he’ll give up and come to the door.” He did.
Memories of . . .
Louie Clifford and Louie Clifford and Louie Clifford. Who taught me all the journalism I will ever need to know. Who gave me my first byline. Who assigned me my first series . . . a series on closed-chest heart massage. Whom I feared and loved. Who, after a little boy had been killed in a suburb, sent me day after day to talk with a certain neighbor woman he suspected had done the killing.
“What do I talk to her about?” I asked Clifford.
“Just talk to her,” Clifford said.
So I talked to her. Every morning. About the weather. About the proper care of her front lawn. About the other children in the neighborhood . . .
Saturday I worked. Clifford didn’t. I was hoping for a day of reprieve. There was a note in my typewriter. “Go see your lady. Clf.”
We talked about the family of the dead boy. About the police. About all the questions the police had asked. And finally, one morning, she asked me if I thought she should tell police about the bullet hole in her kitchen.
“No,” I said. And ran to tell Clifford.
He arranged to have her picked up that day but it was two more days before she confessed. The police were sweating her in an upper room of the police station and our final edition deadline was minutes away.
“You better have something to phone in to Clifford,” said Doris O’Donnell, a crack PD reporter.
I set myself like a sprinter and dashed up the stairs and burst through the door of the interrogation room. Startled faces looked up at me. “Get him the f— out of here,” a cop yelled. They hustled me down the stairs. At the bottom, I ran into Norman Mlachak. “Call Clifford,” he said. I did.
“I can’t find out anything,” I said.
“Just listen,” Clifford said. “Don’t say anything. She confessed 20 minutes ago. We have it in the final.” He had telephoned the interrogation room and talked to a cop who owed him a favor. He had scooped me from 10 miles away.
Louie Clifford. He called me into the paper’s conference room and shut the door. “How would you like to go to Vietnam?” he asked. “I think I would,” I said. “I know you would,” he said. “I’d give my left nut to go.”
That was in 1967. Fifteen years have passed and yet, since the Press died, I have found my memory changing tenses (as memories will) so that the past has the freshness of the present and the present seems as hard and stale as a bad roll at a dull banquet. I can see the city room of the Press on a summer day in the mid-sixties and in my mind’s eye men now dead are resurrected and men now retired are hard at work.
Bob Stafford sits scowling at the rewrite desk, rolling a hand-made cigarette and preparing to take a story from Bergen, Stafford settling in because he knows that Bergen will dictate the story with the length and dramatic flair of an episode of the “Hallmark Hall of Fame.”
“Listen to this, Bob, “ Bergen begins. “You’ve never heard a story like this in your life. There’s this West Side father and son, see—Elmer Monroe, 45, of 677 West 67th Street, and son Dabney, 19—that’s D-dog—A—B, boy—N, nellie—E, echo . . . “
On the copy desk, one of the copy editors is humming a tuneless song, which he will continue to hum during his entire shift. Another copy editor is asleep sitting up. He will nap on the rim for weeks until one Saturday a traitorous or perhaps envious colleague will detonate a firecracker beneath his chair and he will awaken to news he is fired.
“. . . Now get this, Kid. Elmer and Dabney rent a house from a landlord named Henry McCrea. I’m getting the address and spelling. Now they haven’t paid their rent so McCrea has the lock changed on the front door while they are away. They come home and they can’t get in so they get sore. So they go to this cousin’s house and they get a couple of shotguns . . . “
In the darkroom, a pinochle game is in progress. It has been in progress since the day the building opened and is only interrupted, and then grudgingly, when elderly couples are led into the studio to be photographed for the Golden Wedding column.
“. . . They go back to shoot the lock off but McCrea is inside the house with a .45-caliber pistol and he starts banging away at them. Well, they got their 1958 gray Chevrolet station wagon parked across the street and they crouch down, using it for cover, and begin to return the fire. Both of them are pretty good shots because they are experienced hunters, see?”
“How do you know that?” says Stafford, always suspicious of reporters.
“Hell, kid,” says Bergen. “They’re from West Virginia. That’s all they do down there . . .”
Ted Schneider, photographer, comes out of the darkroom and waves. Schneider and I recently shared an interesting adventure which, had Bergen been there to report it, would have become an epic saga.
We had been sent to Mannington, West Virginia, to cover a mining disaster and the city desk had telephoned requesting a photograph that would capture the tragic effect of the deaths on the small town. Schneider decided to climb to a cemetery overlooking the village and shoot his picture—with the little hamlet in the background and a tombstone in the foreground. He soon found the perfect spot but there was no tombstone nearby.
“Doggone,” Schneider said.
“Let’s move one,” I said.
We searched until we found a medium-sized tombstone—about the size of an attic shutter. Schneider got on one side and I on the other.
“Lift,” I said. And, grunting, we began to move the stone toward the spot he had picked. “Jesus,” Schneider said. “Here comes a guy with a gun.”
A man was walking up the slope carrying a rifle.
“Put it down,” I commanded. “Walk around the front of it, put your head down and mourn like hell.”
We stood, heads bowed, expressing a sorrow that was totally genuine. The rifleman passed 40 yards away.
“Rabbit hunting,” Schneider said. “Let’s get this over with.”
“. . . Anyhow, kid,” Bergen says. “Old Elmer and son Dabney are peppering away at the house. And inside the house, old McCrea is trying to get a shot at them, only he can’t see around the station wagon. Bullets are flying back and forth across 67th Street. And then, that’s when Dabney . . . after all, he’s just a kid . . . he panics . . .”
“Hurry up,” says Stafford. He has an eye on the clock because in these days the Press prints five different editions each day and Stafford is hoping to make the late home edition with this story.
“Boy!” he yells. And a young woman hurries over to take the first part of the Bergen story to the city desk so that it can be edited, a fresh page at a time, and hustled into print. Copy aides regardless of sex are called “boy” and will be for another year or so. What will end the practice will be protests, not from women but from blacks.
The copy girl drops the Bergen story on the city desk and scoops up a batch of edited copy and carries that to the horseshoe-shaped copy desk where a group of copy editors sit around the rim looking like sour-faced Apostles who have been given a bad table at the Last Supper.
A second glance at one of the men sitting there is necessary. Even in this newsroom of nonconformists, he seems out of place. He is and he isn’t. His name is Bob and he is a resident of a local mental hospital. For years . . . at least three days each week . . . he has reported to work at the Press as if he were on the payroll and sat with the copy editors (where it must be admitted he blends best) reading the newspaper. No one has ever asked Bob to leave. Patience wore thin during a period when he was conducting a romance with one of the women patients and would bring her with him from home . . . her dress buttons askew and her hair unkempt . . . to sit with him on his glorious perch. But the bloom of romance faded and now he comes alone. “You got to get away from that place where I live,” he explained to Bill Dvorak one horribly stormy day when the two entered the Press building together. “You stay in that place where I live it will drive you crazy.”
(I must break the mood of my summer days here and tell you that Bob kept coming to the paper until the day it folded. Now, like the rest of us, he has lost his shelter. Now, like the rest of us, he must look for another place that will have him. Now, like the rest of us, he must be starting to realize the difficulties of the quest.)
“. . . OK,” Bergen tells Stafford. “You got the scene. McCrea shooting at the Monroes, father and son. Then the kid panics. He cracks under battlefield conditions. He jumps into the station wagon, starts the motor, and pulls away leaving Daddy standing in the middle of the street except not for long because McCrea picks him off so in a second he’s lying there. “
“Where is he now?” asks Stafford.
“At the Morgue, “ says Bergen. “Isn’t that the greatest story you ever heard? Listen, kid, I think it’s worth about a lead and three pages. “
“Yeah,” says Stafford and writes it in seven paragraphs and sends it over to Louie Clifford who is waiting with his copy pencil and who trims it to five.
Louie Clifford. He was the newspaper’s field marshal. Louie Seltzer and Norman Shaw were the policy makers but it was Clifford who was in charge of changing policy into type. If the Press decided to make a certain man mayor of the city of Cleveland, Clifford would supervise stories that were calculated to make the voters lust for the candidate’s leadership. He did this well but he was at his best with the BIG story. Or that story his instincts told him could be pumped up into the BIG Story. His editorial judgements on copy were as unquestioned as Moses’ editorial judgement on the Ten Commandments. Clifford, though, would have trimmed them to seven. And led with the one about murder.
To some reporters, and I am one, he was an entire university. I studied under Clifford the way some composers studied under Beethoven. To a few unlucky reporters, young and not so young, he was a menace to career and self-esteem. One night, on my way out, I passed a newsman whose desk had been positioned far from Clifford’s city desk.
“He doesn’t like me,” the reporter, a man of about 45, said. He was nearly in tears. “I don’t know why,” he said. “He won’t even talk to me.” In a few months, the man quit, never knowing just what sin he had committed. None of us knew.
But if, for reasons equally unfathomable, Clifford liked you, then life was a lark—filled with choice assignments and page one bylines. If you loved newspapering, the chances were that Clifford would be on your side. It was his life. “I hear the guild wants to increase the retirement benefits,” he told me one day. “A GOOD newspaperman doesn’t live long enough to retire.”
Louie Clifford. He was on his way to Indiana on a vacation one Saturday morning and he stopped in the office. Five minutes after he left, the operator paged me.
“You’re on my list as knowing heart massage,” she said. “There’s somebody out on Ninth Street who just passed out. I don’t know who.”
He was on his back sprawled across the seat of his car. The seat was too soft. I pulled him out on the pavement and pumped on his chest, trying to use what I had learned researching the series he had assigned me to write. “One chimpanzee, two chimpanzee,” I recited, struggling to get the rhythm right. But I was crying too hard to say it. At the hospital I took the watch from his wrist and gave it to his wife. I got to him too late. He beat me to another deadline.
Years later I told it all to Mike Roberts. “You ought to write it,” he said.
“I can’t write it,” I said. “It’s a family story.”
But the family is broken up now.
Some of them are dead, except they don’t seem dead when you write about them. Clifford, Horton, Dick Maher, the politics writer, who would hold court every election night in the back room of Marie Schrieber’s old Tavern Chop House on Chester. Other reporters would be staked out at campaign headquarters hoping to talk to the candidates. When Maher, after dining graciously, visited the headquarters, the candidates wanted to talk to HIM. In Chicago, in the summer of ’68, Maher covered the politics in the convention hall; I covered the riots in the street. We would meet in a Loop restaurant after midnight to compare notes. I was a kid and he was a dean but he treated me as an equal. Dead now.
Herman Seid, photographer unflappable. One dawn he went out with Wally Guenther to interview a fracas victim. They got in the door, but the victim appeared at the top of the stairs—a white apparition wrapped in bandages. “Get out, get out, you bastards,” he screamed, then tripped and tumbled down the stairs and landed in a heap at Seid’s feet. “Does this mean I can’t take a picture?” Seid asked. Herman is dead.
Paul Lilley, Forrest Allen, Jack Ballantine, Hilbert Black (who manned the city desk with a sweet disposition, a sour stomach and a package of Rolaids). These were men who were so good . . . so very good . . . that they could afford to have graces. Associate with them and you would learn about class while you were learning the peculiarities of your trade.
They were knights and Louie Seltzer was King Arthur. They called him “Mr. Cleveland.” We didn’t. They did. They, the mayors, the governor, the President. To us, he was Louie. He did not strut the office in regal splendor. He popped in and threw a string of firecrackers on the floor of the city room. He hit reporters in the belly. He bought our children presents at Christmas. He sat on the city desk and answered the phone (to the terror of young reporters calling in from fires who were hoping not to get Clifford, let alone Seltzer.)
He had two loves. His wife and his paper. When his wife was dying, it was necessary to prepare a “10th ad”—a story about her life and accomplishments that would be set in type and ready to run when we had learned she had died. Late one Thanksgiving eve, Ray DeCrane, an assistant city editor, approached me. “Take a crack at Marian Seltzer’s obit, will you?” he said. “Four guys have worked on it and we don’t think it’s right yet.”
“Can I see a proof?” I said.
“I got one locked in my desk,” DeCrane said. “We don’t want Louie to see it. We’re keeping the type stashed in the refrigerator where the printers keep their lunches.” I didn’t have to ask him why. I knew it wasn’t because Seltzer was feared. It was because he was loved.
I am coming to the end of this story and I see that it is loaded with death. It is a story about the death of a paper, but in telling it, without meaning to, I have written mainly about men who have died and about our preoccupation with the coverage of death.
The wonderful people I worked with who have survived the paper—Bill Tanner, Bernie Noble, Paul Tepley, Milt Widder, Tony Tomsic, Bob August, scores of others—I have barely mentioned. They can speak for themselves. I have tried to speak for persons and a paper who lie mute.
I notice, too, to my dismay, that the truth of the Cleveland Press—all of it—is not captured in this obit. What is captured here, in part—in small part—is my truth. All of us have our own truth and those of us who are left will carry our own versions of the feel and history of the newspaper with us to our own graves. Each one of us will call his version the truth but none of us will have it all because you don’t get it all. In journalism or in life.
The one common denominator for all of us is love. I understand something now that I never understood before. I have read that when a loved one dies, one of the many feelings the survivor feels is resentment. This always seemed strange to me before but now I understand why it is so.
I don’t resent Joe Cole or the people who, at the last minute after it was too late, tried to save the Press. I am glad they tried, but the Press I loved is not the Press they ran. The Press I loved gave me adventure, identity, travel, pay, swagger, education, friendship, some measure of fame and fulfillment.
The resentment comes (as it must I now know in the death of anything truly loved) because of what it took from me.
It took nothing by force. It took nothing I would not have voluntarily given, if I had realized I was giving. It took a kind of love that I can never give to another paper because it’s all used up. It took the resources of my youth including that willingness to sacrifice personal dignity for ambition and professional zeal. Any decent man can only offer that once and then he shouldn’t.
And finally, it took a dream. My dream of working for . . . of belonging to such a company of heroes. It took my dream and gave it substance—gave it an address and a certain span of years and never warned me that when the address changed and the years were over, the dream would die with the paper.
Dream and paper both will now sink through the depths of the past until they finally come to rest to lie at the bottom of my soul—a vision of wavering outline, there but not there, real but unreal, visible but unreachable. Dead but haunting me.
(This story was published in the August 1982 edition of Cleveland Magazine. An adaptation was published by Reader’s Digest in December 1982.)